A. Rashied Omar

An imam from South Africa and the Coordinator of the Joan B. Kroc Institute's Programme in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding (PRCP), University of Notre Dame

Interview Conducted and Edited by Burcu Munyas
July, 2005

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

A Calling

I see myself as a Muslim peace builder; I combine scholarship and peacebuilding activism. I see this as my calling, rather than an occupation, and strongly believe in holding good profound scholarship as well as prudent and pragmatic activismtogether.

There is seemingly a big divide between these two. Religious scholars, who have gone through seminaries, go out into educational institutions as academics, or, more likely, to mosques to serve as imams. After a few years, because it takes up all your energy, you can begin to stagnate as an activist. So from time to time, it would be useful to come back to do some serious reading on new thoughts and ideas, and reflect on your past activism. On the other hand, scholars in universities develop some kind of detachment from reality; this "ivory tower intellectualism" is also unhealthy. Therefore, I choose to live at the cutting edge of contemporary scholarship; new ideas, thoughts, theories, and activism, and deal with the question of how I can bring them together.

Bridging Madrasa and Modern Secular Education

I'm not sure that I can trace back consciously when I made the decision to become an imam. At some very young age, I discovered that I had a talent to recite the Quran. As you know, in the Muslim world, recitation of the Quran is an important skill. Islam gives aesthetic value to sound. The call to prayer, the recitation of Quran powerfully invoke spirituality.

So I discovered I had this talent and I attended a madrasa, which is a Muslim religious school to memorize the Quran so I can develop this skill further. I believe I was around 13 years old then. So once you begin to know parts of the Quran, you get invited to lead the prayers. During the fasting month of Ramadan, for example, a few reciters get together, and each recite some portion so as to complete the whole Quran. You also get to lead the prayers when the imam is away. Those who can recite the Quran the best or who know most of the Quran are invited and sometimes I used to find myself in that position.

I also was fortunate to be able to continue my secular education in a public school in South Africa. I lived in two worlds: In the traditional Islamic centers of the madrasa, where there is much memorizing and rote learning, and the secular public school in which there is critical thinking and exposure to modernity. I tried to build a bridge between these two worlds: The traditional world of the madrasa and the critical world of modern secular education.

Early Activism in Apartheid South Africa

1976 was a year of major uprising in South Africa. There was an attempt by the apartheid government to impose the Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction. On 16 June 1976, students in a black township near Johannesburg called Soweto, protested against this imposition, and the police shot and killed some of the demonstrators. That sparked student demonstrations all over the country. I was a student leader in my school at the time. I led the student protest at my school and got imprisoned. I was suspended from school, put on trial, and lost a whole year as a result of this turmoil.

Two things happened as a result of this experience in 1976. One, I became much more committed as an anti-apartheid activist to struggle for peace and justice. Second, I became much more spiritual and religious, because during this difficult time, I could draw on my own inner resources to sustain myself at that very young age. Since then, what I have tried to do is to build a bridge, to find a synthesis between spirituality and the struggle for peace and justice. The answer to how to combine these two in a healthy way lies in commitment to the core values of justice, "embracing the other" and compassion.

Core Values of a Religious Peacebuilder

Having been born and raised in South Africa, my own journey and struggle for justice in the anti-apartheid context has left an indelible impact in my life. After justice comes the notion of, what I would call, embracing the other. For me, the litmus test of a good religion, a good ideology or a world view is the extent to which that world view motivates you, inspires you and empowers you to embrace the other as an extension of yourself.

One of the critical issues in our human relationships is the existential question of "who am I?" The way in which we construct our identity, the way we answer that existential question of "who am I" is inevitably an answer to the question of "who are you." So the "I" and the "you," co-arise; they arise at the same time. And I believe that there is no way that human beings can exist without answers to these questions. Sometimes the answers are consciously formulated, but more often than not, they are formulated by our socialization, without us being fully aware of our answers. And of course, even if you consciously formulate an answer, it is still submerged within yourself and your own socialization which you may be unaware. So that is the constant struggle which I'd like to call "jihad al-nafs," -- the struggle to discipline and nurture a good wholesome ego, sense of self. The sense of self has various implications for the sense of the other. Some people have tried to avoid it and say "I'm not interested in the question of identity," but I think it is our human predicament, and not an aberration, that you define who you are. This challenges us to help ourselves, to enable ourselves, to help others, to enable others, to have a healthy sense of self, which does not offend the dignity or do violence to the other.

An Ethic of Ta'aruf - Embracing the other as an extension of the self

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rashied Omar.

In the Quran, the sacred scripture for Muslims, there is a wonderful verse which says "O, humankind, we have created you into male and female, and fashioned you into nations and tribes?" This is telling us that these differences are not aberrations; this is just the way God created the world. But what are we to do with, for instance, gender differences or ethnic, tribal, national differences? Are men supposed to see themselves as superior or develop sense of self against females? No. The verse gives us the answer; "?so that you may come to know each other," it says, not so that you may despise each other. So you see, this I call the "ethic of ta'aruf," the ethic of getting to know the other, embracing the other as an extension of yourself. You cannot know God unless you know the other. And the more you get to know the other, the more you get to know yourself. So self and other comes through in this. And then, the verse says, the most honored view in the sight of God, is not whether you are male or female, or of this nationality or that nationality, but in terms of your righteous conduct. So there is superiority on the basis of conduct, but it is not for human beings to judge that. It is God who judges that.

So I've spoken about justice, I have spoken about embracing the other, and the third dimension is that of compassion. I believe this is the most important Islamic value. I believe that compassion should be the canopy under which justice and embracing the other and all of the other core values we may think of should operate.

Peace between Justice and Compassion

The Islamic concept of peace navigates between two core values in Islam; that of compassion and justice. Whenever these two core values come into tension with each other, compassion trumps justice. In my view, a legitimate struggle for justice (jihad) has to locate itself within an ethos of compassion. Without compassion, struggles for justice end up mimicking the oppressiveorders against which they revolt. It is precisely here that the crisis of contemporary Muslims is located, this is where the challenge of a credible Islamic peace resides. Hence the question: How does one balance between the two critical concepts of justice and compassion in constructing a viable project of Muslim peacebuilding?

The numerous struggles for social justice, the anti-colonial wars of the first half of the 20th century, the Afghan war against the Soviet invasion, and the struggles against secular elites in many parts of the world with Muslim majority populations - have led justice to be the key hermeneutical key through which Muslims view Islam. This obsession with justice has in turn led to an erosion of the central Islamic concept of compassion. The kind of wanton violence into which many Muslim struggles for justice have degenerated can in large measure be attributed to this phenomenon. How, then, can the central Islamic concept of compassion be recovered and reinvigorated, such that it once again becomes part of the fabric of contemporary Muslim culture? This is indeed the critical challenge facing contemporary Muslims.

Concrete Proposals for Muslim Peacebuilding

To face this challenge, I have formulated a few suggestions based on my personal assessment of the current geo-political realities and the Muslim crisis of extremism.

First, Muslims must not become weary from stating unequivocally again and again that acts of wanton violence and barbarism are contrary to the teachings of Islam. Religious extremism has no virtue in Islam and has been unequivocally condemned by the Prophet of Islam.

Second, there is dire need for more rigorous academic studies of the potentially fertile sources of nonviolence and peacebuilding in Islam and Muslim societies. Apart from the valuable efforts of a few scholars, the field of Islamic peace studies and conflict transformation remains underdeveloped and urgently needs much more attention.

Third, there is an urgent need for the nurturing and training of a new critically minded class of ulama (Muslim religious scholars). It is critical that the existing Muslim religious scholarship contribute toward the emergence of a new generation of scholars who are well-versed in both the traditional Islamic sciences and the modern social sciences. Peace educationand conflict transformation skills grounded within the key Islamic principles of compassion and justice must form an integral and essential part of this formation and training for future imams.

Fourth, the current humanitarian crisis unfolding among the predominantly Muslim population of the Darfur region in Western Sudan provides an ideal opportunity for the deployment of an inter-religious peace service to be led by Muslims. Quran enjoins Muslims to make peace and reconciliation between conflicting parties. The relief efforts of the existing Muslim organizations in Darfur could be expanded to include a peace service dimension and this could lay the groundwork for the establishment of a more sustainable Muslim peace service.

Last but not least, peace scholars need to highlight the fact that the current global conditions do not lend themselves well to credible Muslim peacebuilding initiatives. Peace advocates need to support the call for a public debate on the most effective means to counteract Muslim and other forms of extremism. Inter-religious activists need to join the voices all over the world who are questioning the wisdom of the current strategy pursued in the "war on terrorism." They also need to seriously reassess the controversial US foreign policy which aids authoritarian Muslim regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere, and too often supports the present policies of the state of Israel. The belligerent environment that is being engendered is not helpful in ameliorating the root causes that provide a fertile ground for extremism to thrive. On the contrary, it is generating conditions that favor extremism, thus rendering the task of developing Muslim peacebuilding initiatives very difficult.

"Inter-religious Dialogue is Not an Ambulance"

We need to ask ourselves: Why do we need to wait for conflict and violence to overwhelm us before we feel the need to develop healthy cross-cultural relationships?

What I call "counterintuitive realities" like 9/11 or the need to fight drugs or crime provide impetus to and trigger inter-religious cooperation and solidarity. Though these motivations may be helpful in getting an inter-religious dialogue started, they cannot keep it going. This is because inter-religious peacebuilding depends on long-term relationship building with a broad spectrum of religious actors. It cannot be based on a kind of "quick fix" superficial solution to a crisis. Hence we say, "Inter-religious dialogue is not an ambulance."

Father Christopher Clohessy, at an interfaith peace service at Omar's mosque.

Only motivations that are inherent in each religion, motivations that are not dependent on particular outside circumstances can keep the dialogue going. What are these intrinsic motivations all about? These motivations deal with challenging questions of intentionality. We should ask: Why and for what purpose are you motivated toward the encounter with the other? Is your purpose merely instrumental? For example, is there a need for inter-religious dialogue if there is no conflict or external problem to be dealt with collaboratively?

Intrinsic motivations must also deal with evangelism and da'wah. Does one engage in inter-religious solidarity in order to convert the other to one's own faith? Can one get involved in it with a clear conscience?

If we do not answer these and many other questions, we run the risk of not having done away with mistrust and suspicion and end up with superficial dialogue that does not lead us to the goal of peacebuilding. Therefore, building inter-religious trust should be one of the most important goals of inter-religious solidarity movements.

I was never a card carrying member of the ANC.

Mbeki being welcomed to Claremont Main Road Mosque where Rashied Omar served as an imam for 15 years. Photo by Nasief Manie.

During the anti-apartheid years, our mosque was a place for people to come together to express their grievances concerning the situation in the apartheid regime. There would be meetings of young people planning protests inside the mosque. For us, this was not political activity; this was a struggle for justice. If it seemed political to someone, so be it. For me, though, not belonging to a political party was critical. I was never a card carrying member of the ANC, even though I was sympathetic. This helped me to be critical of the ANC as well. I could invite to our mosque people from the Pan-Africanist Congress, from the Black Consciousness Movement, all of them. When you belong to a political party, that tends, in a very unconscious way, to influence your interpretation of texts. So you would find some verse, some tradition which says that you should vote for the ANC, because you are a member of the ANC. We come with our baggage to our texts.

I am a critical traditionalist.

How to relate to traditions and texts in the light of contemporary life is a very important question. This is a difficult task that requires sensitivity and humility. Muslim scholarship is caught between extremes. The one extreme is that which reifies the tradition, saying this tradition we have inherited is unchangeable; it contains the beginning and the end of the truth. On the other hand, we have, what I'd call liberal Muslim scholars who are enamored by modernity and say that if we embrace values of modernity, it will be the panacea to all our problems. Here lies my discontentment with modern scholarship: There are so many atrocities that have been the result of modernity; for instance the Nazi holocaust is a product of modernity... Nationalisms, and the trauma that is created...So I would want the advocates of modernity to have some humility.

I find myself between caught between traditionalists and modernists. I consider myself to be a critical traditionalist. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the tradition, I am immersed in it, I am constantly reacquainting myself with the wisdom of the ancestors. But I also want to have a firm understanding of the challenges of our times. I am willing to learn from modernity and post-modernity, while at the same time being aware of the limitations of my own subjectivity.

On Social Change and "Gender Jihad"

Dr. Amina Wadud-Muhsin giving a pre-sermon talk at the Claremont Main Road Mosque, as part of the mosque's gender jihad, led by Imam Rashied.

It is sometimes easier for me to sit down and engage in dialogue with a Christian or a Jew, when they hold similar positions over for example, human rights. This dialogue may be harder to achieve with some people within my own tradition who may not care much about human rights and democracy. To engage with such kind of co-religionists in a dialogue is a challenge. It requires patience and perseverance. Therefore, as an imam, my challenge is not to marginalize myself, so that I do not have any leverage with my community to create change, but to get people to understand where I am coming from. It is necessary to get them to trust me and to know that I am not fake, that I am also taking my tradition very seriously, and gently show them that the path I believe to be much better could be viable. That requires a lot of tact. This has been my struggle? If you look at some of the low points in my career, when I was being demonized for allowing a woman, Dr. Amina Wadud to give a pre-sermon speech in the mosque for example, I had to persevere through persecution without any venom against my persecutors. I had to persevere and to trust that my message of gender jihad would eventually dawn upon people. And this has happened. Despite all the protests and people wanting to drive me out of the mosque, my congregation stood with me because they knew, I'd taken them gradually to this position and they understood it and eventually even the community, though grudgingly, had to accept it.

This radical change that was vehemently opposed gradually became part of normal life and had an effect on women's position in the mosque. This is how social change happens. It does not happen overnight, even though we may like it to be so. Patience in adversity, having the resoluteness to continue despite all obstacles and believing in what you hold to be the truth and always having hope that things will be better are key to leading social change.

Sabr as a quality of activism

This patience in adversity, perseverance corresponds to the Islamic concept of sabr.

Sabr motivates and spurs the believer to face the challenges of life with hope and great sense of contentment concerning its outcomes. The believer who is adorned with the quality of sabr is an activist.

Imam Rashied, co-deputy Chairperson of the Inter-Religious Commission on Crime and Violence meeting with the then president Nelson Mandela.

Someone has imaginatively described the struggle of the activist by equating it with that of a young bird who learns to fly for the very first time. When the little bird raises its wings in flight, it hardly manages to open them and stumbles to the ground. The little bird, however, does not give up. It tries again and again, and each time is able to go further until eventually, it is able to soar and fly through the sky with grace and splendor.

In the contemporary age we live in, our lives have become faster and more stressed than before. We want everything to happen quickly, we are always in search of quick fixes and solutions. We have developed a culture devoid of sabr. But social change does not happen over night. The Quran was not revealed overnight, but over a period of 23 years. During this time, the Arab society was gradually transformed. The Prophet Muhammad's endurance and perseverance was tested at every point and his success can be attributed largely to this quality of sabr.

We have to think the unthinkable.

Religion, along side with other members of the civil society, must be the moral conscience of the society. The challenge for the progressive inter-religious movement is how to influence public policy and public society to be moral and just. We need to get rid of our obsession of seeking solutions only through the state. As Thabo Mbeki said; We need to think the unthinkable. We have to turn our attention away from the state and refocus our energies and resources towards the restrengthening of civil society. Even if the state wants to ignore public opinion, how long can it ignore it?

Don't leave spirituality to the conservatives.

For many progressives, spirituality has become like an ivory tower. We shouldn't leave spirituality to the conservatives, as though it is only something that belongs to the private sphere of our lives. Often we face the risk of running away from ourselves, creating an imbalance in our lives. On the one hand we're deeply involved in the fight for justice, on the other hand we mistreat ourselves, our spouses and children and our parents. As religious leaders, we should go to the grassroots and inspire our people, but we can't inspire others if we don't develop the qualities of spirituality in our own lives.

Everyday is a new opportunity for jihad al-nafs.

Social activism becomes meaningful only if it emerges from a spiritually purified and a non-avaricious heart. Without a solid spiritual foundation, social activism can unwittingly become a self-fulfilling quest for self-aggrandisement, self-enrichment, and the feeding of the base desires of the carnal self. In Islam we see this challenge expressed in the notion of jihad al-nafs, which is, in mystical traditions of Islam the greatest form of jihad. It is the spiritual struggle to purify the soul and refine the disposition.

Omar with Anglican Archbishop Ndugane, leading members of the Electoral Code of Conduct Observer Commission in prayer before the June 1999 elections in South Africa. Photo by Benny Gool.

We need to develop a social spirituality, an understanding that compassion should always supercede justice. This gentle side of Islam is forgotten all over the world. In our own lives we tend to forget this balance as well. We need to look at our selfish egos, to work within our own weaknesses in a compassionate way. By exerting ourselves to our utmost ability in any field, to work on inner as well as outer transformation, we can make a humble contribution towards the fashioning of a new world that is moral and just. Everyday is a new opportunity for jihad al-nafs.